Icicles on bicycles

by Nov 22, 2019

Kent Dougall, owner of Phat Moose Cycles on Hawthorne Avenue, often helps first-time winter cyclists prepare for the colder months. On Nov. 19, 2019, he shows off a fat bike in his shop. Photo by Kate Schellenberg.

Winter biking never used to be popular in the city.

According to winter biking advocate Don Fugler, in the ‘70s it was rare to see any cyclists at all in the winter months.

“When I first started in Ottawa, if I ever met another cyclist in winter, we’d stop and chat,” said Fugler, 68, who has been winter cycling in Canada for 45 years.

“But now sometimes, I’ve been to an intersection and there’s a cyclist at all four stop signs.”

As more people choose to cycle year-round, cycling advocates in Ottawa say there are lots of things to consider. Freezing cold, icy road conditions, poor visibility and bike wear and tear are just some of the headaches associated with winter biking. However, with the right preparation, it doesn’t have to be a winter woe.

According to data from Ottawa’s bike counter, winter cycling numbers have been increasing in the past few years.

The average number of roundtrips made by cyclists in winter months, measured by a counter at the intersection of Laurier and Metcalfe. Data from the eco-counter. Graphic illustration by Kate Schellenberg

Coun. Catherine McKenney, a year-round cyclist, has also noticed an uptick in winter bikers.

“In warmer months, there are over 4,000 people a day that takes over the bike lanes, and that’s increasing in the winter,” they said. “Every winter we see more and more people on board.” 

Bundling up

Getting the right gear for cycling is important, according to Kent Dougall, owner of Ottawa’s Phat Moose Cycles.

“Make yourself comfortable,” said Dougall. “If you’re not going to be comfortable, if you’re not wearing the right stuff, you’re going to be soaked. It’s going to suck and you’re not going to do it.”

Wearing the right stuff doesn’t have to cost a lot.

“People ask me all the time, what should I wear on my feet? Should I get these really fancy $450 dollar boots to commute in? I say no you shouldn’t because you’re just gonna put them in gnarly, awful salt,” said Dougall.

Fugler echoed this sentiment.

“I know there’s a lot of people that want cycling shoes that clip on or they have shoe covers and all that stuff,” he said. “That’s good for them. For me, it’s rubber boots.”

The most important item of clothing? Waterproof gear.

“You don’t have to dress really warmly but you need rain pants and a jacket that is not only waterproof but visible,” said Fugler.

Dougall didn’t recommend any specific clothes. Instead, he said, “you want to be warm and dry. Who cares? It can be big and ugly and clunky. Just get it done.  Function over form.” 

Winter cycling tips from Kent Dougall. Graphic illustration by Kate Schellenberg.

Getting your bike ready

Gear for your bike can get a bit more expensive, though.

Dougall recommends budgeting at least $300 dollars a year for maintaining your bike. He sees clients hoping to repurpose their old shabby bike for winter cycling, in the hopes of doing it on the cheap.

“Your parts are going to corrode and you’re going to have to replace them. Winter studded tires are really expensive,” said Dougall.

Studded tires cost, on average, $150 per tire at Phat Moose Cycles.

On top of a bike and studded tires, winter-cyclists need fenders, lights for the front and back of their bike and a warm helmet. At Phat Moose Cycles, this could run you upwards of $200 dollars.

Chilly cycling

In Ottawa, temperatures can get down to -30 C during the colder months, a fact that cyclists need to take into account.

“I cycled home last night in -20 C. And I was actually quite cozy,” said cycling advocate Hans Moor.

Originally from the Netherlands, Moor is well known in Ottawa and writes about all things outdoors on his blog Hans on the Bike.

“If you’re dressed for it, it’s like skiing,” he said.

Another issue in Ottawa is the fluctuating weather.

“In Finland, [cyclists] just kind of flatten the snow,” said Moor. “You can cycle uncomplicatedly on it. Here it freezes, it thaws, it freezes, it thaws. Every city has its own issues.”

Have a spill kit

Winter cyclists must heed more than just factors like cold and the cost.

“Will you fall? Yes. So hopefully you’ve taken precautions,” warns Dougall.

Most cyclists have at least one story per winter about falling. For Fugler, he’s improved over time, only taking one or two spills each year. He names ice as the No. 1 reason.

“There are times where I’ve gone through a deep puddle in winter and then realized there’s ice on the bottom … and you fall in the puddle,” said Fugler.

Since falling is almost guaranteed, Dougall gets cyclists to think about where they bike.

“Look at your route, assess your route. Can you take your summer route and change it? Is it safe? Are you just on pathways? Okay, great, then let’s look at those, or can you take side streets,” suggested Dougall.

The weather is cold, the roads are slippery, so why bike instead of taking a car? It may all be worth it for the special moments that come along every so often.

When heavy rain falls on top of snow, freezing into a hard crust, this can seem to many like a dangerous disaster. But for Fugler, these are ideal conditions.

“It means everywhere is the road. So you just ride across fields, you can ride across the street, the front yard,” he said. “It happens very, very rarely but when it does happen you should take advantage of it, because the whole world is rideable.”

Biking up and down Laurier Avenue in downtown Ottawa on Nov. 19, 2019. Video by Kate Schellenberg.

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